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CARC's Johnson helps researchers achieve success

Image of Ryan JohnsonCARC staff profile

Consider a telescope. We use it to observe, to measure, and sometimes to discover new objects and phenomena in our universe. Throughout history, every time we built a larger and more powerful telescope, the further we saw and the more we discovered.

That’s one analogy applications scientist Dr. Ryan Johnson uses to describe the resources at The University of New Mexico Center for Advanced Research Computing (CARC). Researchers coming to the Center for help most likely will end up in conference with Johnson, who walks them through what they need to know about the largest, most powerful computing system at the university.

“In some ways, the supercomputer is the telescope of the 21st century in that it is an instrument that allows scientific experimentation and discovery. Every time we build a bigger telescope we see new phenomena and we learn more about our universe. The same is true for computers,” Johnson explained. “What’s unique about computers is those large telescopes are, for the most part, only useful to one domain in science; astronomy, but a supercomputer is used by every domain of science and some in the humanities also.”

The Center brings in researchers from a wide range of disciplines, from all physical sciences, engineering, the medical center, the arts, humanities, and social sciences such as anthropology, archeology, and geography. Johnson is usually the person they see to help them complete their research, regardless of their field of study.

“We get a unique cross-section of the campus. There is no other unifying entity that sees every researcher who is using computers for research, like us. All those disciplines run their models at CARC, testing their mathematical models of the world against reality. All domains have grown together and now sit here on our computer together. That’s what I’m really excited about,” Johnson said.

Johnson is from Albuquerque and went to Bennington College in Vermont. The experience of following a nontraditional career arc gave him a unique perspective on science.

Bennington is the art school where Martha Graham invented modern dance, he said. Starting out as a philosophy major, he switched to chemistry when he decided chemistry could answer more questions and was more productive. Often, he was the only chemistry student standing in line to enroll in classes with more professors than students. He started his research career immediately and was able to publish papers before he graduated.

“Chemistry allowed me to answer questions about why the world is the way it is, why I see what I see… how to do the dishes. It’s reflected in everyday life and has the most explanatory power for my everyday life,” Johnson explained. His current research is about generating plasmas, “studying how metals’ loose floppy electrons can speed up reactions useful to us.”

Johnson explained that at CARC, he helps people learn the skills they need to do their research on the CARC computers.

“I help people learn to the laboratory skills you need to do research on the computer. I see the computer as a laboratory and like any other laboratory, there are good skills and if you learn them, you’ll get better results. I want to help researchers develop that skill set. They usually arrive at my door because the models they are exploring or simulating have become too complicated to run on their computers, on their laptops.”

“I absolutely love this job. It’s always challenging. Always interesting. I love it more than any other job I’ve had before. I’m always working with people on cutting edge of their fields.”

When not helping researchers at CARC, Johnson likes to hike around the state with his drone.

“I like exploring and I’ve been having a lot of fun using drones lately using them in exploring the strange  and fantastic geography of northern New Mexico,” he said.

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Johnson has office hours Wednesdays at CARC from 10 a.m. to noon, or by email appointment.

CARC staff profile
Hussein Al-Azzawi working to expand research resources